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Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 2009 - Day Three

"Do you feel guilty about killing newspapers?" Saul Hansell asked Craig Newmark yesterday. The founder of Craig's List, widely credited with stealing newspapers' classified ads, offered the mildly presented answer that it would be more correct to say that Craig's List, Amazon, and eBay took the newspapers' audience by offering them a more friendly and convenient marketplace.

At some point in the early 19-00s, Charlotte-Anne Lucas explained today, newspapers changed from charging for content to charging for audiences, leading them to selecting content based on its mass appeal. Exactly, she didn't say, like AOL in the mid 1990s, when it switched from making its money from connect time, which favored all sorts of niche content, to making its money from advertising, which required mass eyeballs.

One advantage bloggers have, noted Marcy Wheeler is that they don't have to frame every story as a controversy that can be resolved in 700 words (how like a sitcom).

My other favorite quote of the day, from a panel on whether government secrecy makes any sense in the post-Internet world "Secrecy makes people stupid." The speaker, Steve Aftergood, a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, went on to note that the US spends $10 billion a year on keeping secrets - that is, protecting classified information. He didn't draw the obvious conclusion...

The panel, which included a former undercover agent (Mike German, now with the ACLU), a former director of the US Information Security Oversight Office (Bill Leonard), and a former chief information policy officer from the NSA (Mike Levin), is worth listening to in full. Satirists could have fun with Aftergood's later note, that while you can find out that the 2008 intelligence budget was $47.7 billion, and the 2007 budget was $43.5 billion, the 2006 number is classified - as is the budget from 50 years ago. Aftergood tried to find out the number from the 1940s and was refused; appeal was denied, second appeal was denied, and a lawsuit to force disclosure was unsuccessful. He's not sure how this figure could damage national security; I say with these numbers he could go on Letterman.

Still, it's a fair point to say that secrets are harder to keep than they've ever been, not least because the intelligence community is adopting the same kinds of tools the rest of us use, albeit versions closed to public access. Perhaps we can get away from the sort of thing John Le Carre wrote about at the end of one of his books, in which an agent died for a fact that would be published in a Russian newspaper the following week. The good news is there's to be a review of all these procedures, a "unique opportunity", the panel called it, to effect real change.

We finished today with a selection of ultra-short presentations. Lock your credit record with a ten-digit code, said Jeremy Duffy, and celebrate Sam Warren, Brandeis's less famous partner, said Paul Rosenzweig. The highlight for me, though: meeting < a href="http://www.veni.com">Veni Markowski, whom I've read about for years as Bulgaria's cyberspace king. He's going to work now for the government to coordinate international action on cybersecurity. Good stuff.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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